February 5, 2024

Configuration Management Tools: Examples, What to Try & How to Find the Right One

Configuration Management
Products & Services

Configuration management tools can help you track and manage changes to systems within your infrastructure, making sure that your software and hardware runs reliably and smoothly. As we’ve said in other blogs about DevOps tools and best practices, often the tools are not the problem when organizations are rolling out changes — it’s the “why.” 

In this blog, we’ll take a step back to examine the “why” to better support your search though different configuration management tools. There are a lot of tools out there, but it’s important to know why you’re searching in the first place, and what your organizational needs are. Let the hunt begin! 

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What are Configuration Management Tools? 

Configuration management tools are pieces of software that help system administrators keep track of how their systems are set up or configured. Configuration management software makes it easier to pinpoint issues, fix problems, and make sure that changes to system components are successful.

Configuration management can broadly cover the different kinds of regular management that happens in your environment, such as: 

  • Infrastructure as Code (IaC): When you use configuration management within IaC, you are able to manage resources like servers, networks, and storage in a declarative way. 
  • Continuous Integration/Continuous Delivery (CI/CD): CI/CD tools automate the “build, test, and deploy” pipeline, and can be configured according to the needs of the DevOps team managing this pipeline.
  • Compliance as Code (CaC): Use of a similar declarative approach aligns configurations to industry best-practice security standards, such as the Center for Internet Security’s (CIS) benchmarks. This eliminates policy drift and the ‘fire drill’ that often results. 
  • Version Control: This tool tracks changes to files and allows users to revert back to files if needed. Version control can be configured according to what rules this process should follow. 

Even the term “configuration management” is a little misleading — it can refer to many different, sometimes very different, kinds of tasks that you need to perform in your environment. From updates to file access to compliance, the way that you configure your infrastructure from the smallest task to the largest requirement can make a huge difference. 

👀 See configuration management in action with a use case >>

When you look even further, yes, even the word “tool” is misleading. Under the umbrella of configuration management, you will find automation, compliance, and collaboration. The right configuration management tool isn’t just a tool, it’s a set of actions that can be performed under a holistic set of goals for your environment. 

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Configuration Management Tools: Examples & What to Try

Your options for configuration management tools are vast and varied. It's not always clear what's the best option for managing configurations in your infrastructure.

Here are some of the most popular examples of configuration management tools:

A list is fine, but let's make it a bit easier to narrow your search. Let's break out configuration management tools by what's right for your IT infrastructure.

Configuration Management Tools for Simple IT

If your organization is only deployed in data centers OR cloud, or if you're only managing a small number of nodes, you might find it easier to get started with a simple configuration management tool. Consider trying:

  • Puppet Bolt: Lightweight, agentless, and ideal for small IT and starter automations.
  • Puppet Enterprise: Our free 10-node trial is the perfect way to get started with small-time configuration management.
  • Chef Solo: Unlike Chef, Chef Solo doesn't require a central server.
  • Docker: Docker is built explicitly for container configuration management.
  • Ansible: Low resource requirements mean Ansible can work for managing a small number of servers.
    • Ansible vs. Puppet: Ansible uses imperative automation to enforce configurations, where Puppet uses declarative automation. The difference matters, especially in complex IT environments.
  • Microsoft SCCM: Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) is built for Windows-only configuration management.

Configuration Management Tools for Big IT

If your IT environment is already too big for simpler tools (high node count, compliance requirements, cross-deployed infrastructure, etc.), consider the options below:

  • Puppet Enterprise: Puppet Enterprise contains the tools you need to manage secure infrastructure more efficiently at scale. Puppet's agent-based automation (with agentless capabilities) and desired state enforcement enable policy as code (PaC) — a must for complex IT across hybrid cloud and multi-OS environments. Built-in CI/CD, role-based access control (RBAC), and compliance management features make Puppet Enterprise the scalable configuration management tool of choice for large teams and the large IT they manage.
    • You can extend the use cases of Open Source Puppet with free and premium modules, but Puppet Enterprise offers tools for truly scalable configuration management out of the box. Learn more about the differences between Puppet's open source and enterprise versions here >>
  • Terraform: In large IT estates, Terraform works with Puppet: Terraform can help provision servers and VMs, storage, and networking devices while Puppet can manage OSes and app-level configurations.
  • Kubernetes: Modules on the Puppet Forge can install and configure a Kubernetes cluster to make configuration management easier at scale.
  • SaltStack: While it's generally designed to scale, SaltStack (colloquially just called Salt) uses a push model based off the ZeroMQ library, which ultimately require additional coding and configurations – which is especially cumbersome in large IT environments.
  • AWS Systems Manager: If you're deep into Amazon Web Services, this suite can help you manage configurations, patch, and automate.
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Buying a Configuration Management Tool vs. Developing Your Own

Generally speaking, you can start using tools for configuration management in one of three ways:

  • Developing your own configuration management tool
  • Downloading a free or open source configuration management tool
  • Buying a configuration management tool

Each starting point has benefits and drawbacks.

Developing Your Own Configuration Management Tool

  • Pros: Customization, control, and cost management are the most frequently touted benefits of a DIY configuration management tool.
  • Cons: In today's tech landscape, the myriad CM tool options available at all different price points pretty much wash out the benefits of a homemade solution.

Early adopters of configuration management tools had to create various homegrown solutions. The first CM tools often incorporated a slapdash of make, bash, and perl scripts tied with version control software to manage complex environments.

Today, bespoke, internally developed configuration management tools are a rarity. That's partially due to the rise of flexible, cost-effective, pre-built options, but there are three main reasons nobody builds their own CM tool anymore:

  1. Cost to develop and maintain the entire toolchain. Making your own CM tool means developing the tool, writing the code, maintaining the software, and training users. The person or people who created it is often the only expert, which makes turnover particularly painful. When you lose your SysAdmin champion, the rest of your team is left picking up the pieces, kicking off a vicious cycle of tech debt.
  2. Inability to handle complex hybrid environments. When you build an internal tool, it's made to manage configurations for one platform. As you expand your infrastructure and add OSes, the tool naturally fails because it wasn't built to handle the stress of complex, heterogeneous environments.
  3. Lack of community support and open source ecosystem. Internal tools don't usually see the light of day outside of the organization because they don't have a clear licensing policy. Without open sourcing it, there's no way for external users to peer review, test, contribute, and help improve the tool.

Rolling your own configuration management tool may have made sense back when Linux fit on floppy disks and open source was a new vocabulary. But today, there are compelling reasons to find a CM tool that fits your IT config needs, rather than writing and maintaining an in-house configuration management tool.

Downloading a Free Configuration Management Tool

  • Pros: It's right in the name: The lower the investment, the lower the monetary risk (at least, to begin with).
  • Cons: A steep learning curve, limited customizability, and integration challenges. While many free configuration management tools are supported by an open source community, free tools don't usually have the support of paid and commercial options.

Free and open source configuration management tools can be a great option for simple or even growing infrastructure. Mature, established tools are often more secure, as they're audited regularly by an open source community.

But the fact remains that most free and open source CM tools aren't made for scalability or complexity. Getting the most out of them usually means a steep learning curve, limited customizability, and a strong dependency on community support over professional assistance.

Buying an Enterprise Configuration Management Tool

  • Pros: Robust features, integrations, scalability, support and training, and built-in security and compliance.
  • Cons: Some CM tools can come at a high initial cost, which can cause sticker shock before the tool has a chance to prove ROI. Some enterprise tools are more flexible than others.

The choice between building, downloading, or buying a configuration management tool comes down to a lot of factors, like cost, the size of your organization, and your plans for the future. Read on for some considerations to take forward as you look for the right configuration management system.

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Finding the Best Configuration Management Tools 

The options above can give you an idea of the landscape, but they shouldn't be taken as prescriptive. It can't be said enough that the “best” configuration management tool is the one that meets your specific needs.

Here are a few factors to consider when choosing a configuration management tool.

Your Environment 

How large and complex are the systems that you need to manage? Are you working within a cloud environment, on-prem, or a hybrid of both? How many users do you manage, and how large is the team that is managing them? 

Your Budget 

The price of a configuration management tool that handles one task, like version control for instance, will vary from a configuration management platform that will handle everything you need to configure within your environment. We’ll explore more about configuration platforms in the next section. 

Your Specific Requirements 

Do you need configuration management to help with compliance? To automate tasks? To update or patch systems? Not every configuration management tool will be able to support every kind of task — it’s important to approach your search with this in mind. 

You’ll want to ask yourself: 

  • Is it compatible and scalable with the current infrastructure? Configuration management software will need to play well with your current operating systems and scale to manage a growing number of nodes and team members that will need to access configuration management across complex environments.
  • What level of automation will you need? If you are looking for deployment automation, policy as code enforcement, or the overall management of systems and applications, you’ll want to make sure the tool offers some level of automation.
  • What are your industry compliance requirements? You’ll also want to think ahead for audits and generally ensure that active configuration is aligned with internal and external policy. 
  • What are the security features you’re looking for? Your configuration management solution should make it easy to manage the security of automation infrastructure. 

This is where the search for a single tool becomes complicated — can one tool accomplish every requirement that your configuration management plan needs? 

Enter the configuration platform, which encompasses multiple tools. 

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Configuration Tools vs. A Configuration Platform

Configuration management tools set out to accomplish a set of tasks — but what if you need a solution that does more than just configuration? What if you are looking for a tool that also includes visibility into changes being made and automated alerts to let you know how a change could impact your environment? 

A configuration platform covers more than specific tasks. 

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What is a Configuration Platform? 

A configuration management platform integrates multiple tools and capabilities for managing configuration and automation tasks across an entire IT environment. 

A platform includes infrastructure discovery, asset management, policy enforcement, and reporting and analytics. Configuration management platforms are designed to provide a more holistic view of an organization's IT environment and enable more comprehensive automation and management capabilities. 

Puppet Enterprise is an example of a configuration management platform, since it includes features such as:

  • Application delivery
  • Patch management
  • Compliance monitoring & reporting
  • IT process automation
  • Role-based access control

While configuration management tools are focused on specific areas of functionality, a configuration management platform provides a more comprehensive set of capabilities across an entire IT environment. 

Puppet is More Than Just a Configuration Tool 

Puppet Enterprise is more than just a tool for handling enterprise-scale configurations. We call it a 'platform' for a reason.

With testing, RBAC, compliance, and value reporting built in — and more capabilities available by premium extensions — Puppet Enterprise can help you manage automation, compliance, change management, and other tasks holistically across your environment while providing supporting enterprise observability and scalability. It’s this level of robust “can-do” management that really makes it more than a tool.

We’d love to show you what we mean with a free demo of Puppet Enterprise along with the different features that are specific to your needs: 


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